Unlike the United States, China does not have an affirmative requirement to prove that a trademark is being used in commerce. You do not have to prove use for a trademark application to proceed to registration, and once a trademark is registered you do not have to prove you are still using it to maintain or renew the registration.
Foreign companies have come to realize that China’s lack of a use requirement is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows trademark squatters to register marks for a wide range of products and services they have no intention of ever providing. On the other hand, it allows “real” trademark owners to register their marks to cover a much wider range of products and services than would be allowed in most other countries. As we have noted before, Starbucks employs this strategy better than anyone: it has registered “STARBUCKS” as a trademark in all 45 classes of goods and services.
However, China will require evidence of use if a trademark registration is challenged for non-use. The basic rule is that once a mark has been registered for three years, it is vulnerable to a non-use cancellation. At that point, if a third party files a non-use cancellation, the owner has two months to provide evidence of use within the past three years.
If you are actively marketing your goods or services in China, then it should be fairly easy to provide evidence of use. Your use of the trademark in question on packages, containers, labels, manuals, advertisements, product displays, signage or at exhibitions are all likely to be sufficient. In general, original documents are required, but when a product has a lot of ephemera this is a low bar.
Where it gets difficult is when the only use of the trademark in question is on a product manufactured solely for export. It is not completely resolved in China whether such use constitutes either (1) use in China with respect to a trademark infringement action or (2) use in China with respect to a non-use cancellation. But in our experience, the Chinese Trademark Office (CTMO) will generally accept manufacturing in China, even if solely for export, as sufficient to defeat a non-use cancellation.
But you still need original documentary evidence!
It is all too common for foreign companies to order products from their China manufacturer for years on end using English-only documents that never identify the trademark on the products, and often never even identify the product with sufficient specificity. That makes it almost impossible to prove use to the CTMO’s satisfaction. What you want is documents that are in Chinese and clearly demonstrate your use of the mark in China on the products covered by your trademark registration: documents like invoices, shipping documents, quality inspections, and customs export declarations. Photographs are helpful to provide context but, standing alone, are usually insufficient to demonstrate use.
Typically, most (or all) of the documents that can prove trademark use for export-only products are held by the factory. So while you are still on good terms with your factory, you should make sure to keep a complete, regularly updated set of documents for each of your China trademark registrations. If things go south with your supplier, you don’t want your trademarks to be at risk too.